When Fr. Bernard Lee, William V. D’Antonio and others were working on the research that led to the book The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities, they had to decide how they would measure the communities when they were making the count. “We’re sure of 37,000,” Lee said, but added that he thinks there are almost certainly more than that in the United States. “Any number would be a guess,” he said.
“One of the things we did at the very beginning was ask, ‘Do we define what a small Christian community is and only [consider] those who fit the definition? Or do we count every group whose self-perception is a small Christian community?’ ” They chose the latter idea — group self-perception — but they eliminated anybody who met less often than once a month and didn’t have prayer as part of what they did.
“What we did for example was pick out a concentrated region in seven different areas in the United States that seemed typical,” Lee said, explaining that these are standard sociologists’ techniques. “If these are typical, then the other areas are similar.”
In 2002, a gathering at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio brought together communities from across the United States plus a dozen other countries that were interested in the idea of small Christian communities. The 2002 conference discussed the findings of the study and was the predecessor to the 2007 conference in St. Paul.
Right now, three national organizations deal with separate aspects of the small Christian community world, according to Marianist Br. Bob Moriarty, who leads the Office of Small Christian Communities in the Hartford, Conn., archdiocese, and who was a main organizer of the 2007 conference. The National Alliance of Parishes Restructuring into Communities focuses on parishes. The North American Forum for Small Christian Communities, which has members from 70 to 80 dioceses in the United States and Canada, is for the diocesan overseers. The third, the Small Christian Community Connection — formerly called Buena Vista — takes a broader approach and is more about the individuals who are in small Christian communities themselves. The bilingual 2007 conference was sponsored by all three of these organizations, as well as two organizations that work with Hispanic Catholics. Representatives from the sponsoring organizations will sort through the material that was generated at the conference and put it into a plan of action for galvanizing the energies of these communities, Moriarty said.
While in Latin American countries, awakening the consciences of the poor allows them to challenge the power structures, in the United States, this role falls to the middle class.
“If the middle class gets conscientized, they can move,” Lee said, citing past examples of Vietnam protests and involvement with the civil rights movement. “That’s why I regret that the small Christian communities haven’t gotten organized” on a national level in the United States. If they were, he said, they could be a real force for change.
“We need to encourage people to walk on two feet of social action,” Moriarty said. People are to practice individual acts of mercy and work for systemic justice, work on their relationships and reach out to the world. It isn’t one or the other.
“To realize the potential systemic impact of small communities, we need to think of them not singly, but as connected multiples,” Moriarty said. “If we connect small Christian communities through already available parish, deanery and diocesan structures, we have a real chance for small communities to have a coordinated social impact.
“Small communities are not simply sitting there feeling good together,” he said. “They are not simply little support groups stroking each other’s psyches.”
— Erin Ryan
National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2007